Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Context, context, context

I recently read an enlightening book that looked at the letters of Paul to Timothy, including his letter to the church at Ephesus, in the context of the place and time they were written.

Now although all Bible scholars claim to interpret the Bible in context, the truth is that seldom happens. Many, many times in my fundamentalist experience, sermons and doctrines are proof-texted. Verses are taken out of the context of the whole book, the time and place there were written, and just placed out there in a sermon as if it were a sticky note from God, randomly popping up for no related reason on a particular page.

So many false doctrines are created and propagated that way. There are so many sacred cows bred and fed by this kind of Bible teaching. And it seems once one person puts it out there (dispensationalism, rapture theology, etc.) then other just repeat that same thoughts verbatim, using the proof texts out of context as if that actually meant anything.

Anything that has to be expounded upon at length, explaining that "this is what it really means", especially if you need extra charts and time lines to make it clear, a discerning Bible student should shun. But instead, it appeals to the pride of man to be one of the esoteric few to "understand" this hidden truth that no other Christians in the centuries before were smart enough to find.

The book I read recently, What's With Paul and Women? by Jon Zen, points out that none of the passages in the letters to Timothy or the church at Ephesus should be taken out of context, as so many fundamentalist do today. The message must fit in with the life of Jesus, the acts of the apostles and the other epistles. It should be read as a response from Paul to what was going on in that time and place.

But many fundamentalists read these passages as if the words were meant to supercede the previous words and actions of Jesus toward women. They ignore the times Jesus himself sent women to testify of him, the times women ministered to and with Jesus in the gospels and the times Jesus commended women for their faith and devotion to him. They don't mention the times Jesus honored women publicly, calling one woman to the front of the synagogue before healing her, declaring that another's devotion in washing his feet be told everywhere the gospel is openly proclaimed.

They read Paul's letters to Timothy as if they were written to modern day American congregations, not to a man combating false teachings in a city consumed with goddess worship. Fundamentalists ignore the entire context of the new covenant, and read these letters as if they were a sticky note- an interruption of the entire narrative of Jesus' life and the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the church since His ascension. Sort of like Monty Python, the British comedy from the seventies, would interrupt the show with the announcement "and now for something completely different!", modern complementarian/patriarchalists act as if context doens't mean a thing when reading anything Paul wrote about women.

Gender roles in the church, dispensationalism, and the so-called "rapture" are not the only sacred cows out on my char-grill these days. I want to root out and jettison every false teaching I have ever been fed. I am looking at everything with fresh eyes, and it is amazing.

I am reading books of the Bible, not passages, not even simply chapters. I consider who wrote it, when and where and to whom it was written. It is astounding to me how much poorly supported ideas I swallowed whole as "the word of God" when in reality, it's not there at all.

Ever heard the old rule that Christians should only marry other Christians, or even only be close friends with other Christians, or in the most extreme cases, even restrict their entire social life to Christians only (and by this they usually mean "our brand of Christian only"). The proof text for this is the verses in 2 Corinthians 6.

14Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial[b]? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."[c]
17"Therefore come out from them
and be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you."[d]
18"I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."[e]

Yet, in context, this whole book was written to combat false apostles who were contradicting Paul's teaching. They were written to pagan Greco-Roman society, with their pantheon of gods and goddesses. Clearly Paul is asking them to listen to him, to consider his life and how much he loves them and has suffered for the gospel sake. He is continuing to plainly teach that you can't just add Jesus to your pantheon of gods and goddesses. Clearly Paul is saying that being in relationship with Jesus is different, you yourself becoming the temple of God and that you cannot join that temple with prostitutes serving other gods, nor simply add the worship of Jesus to your worship of Zeus or Apollo.

How many times have I heard this lifted out of context and had it explained to me that it meant a Christian couldn't marry a non-Christian? Too many times to count. I am shocked at myself that I never once questioned this. 0.0

The more pious take the verses and make it mean even more restrictive things: you can't be close friends with non-Christians, or be partners in business with non-Christians, or yet stricter so that you can't be any kind of friend with non-Christians, or do any kind of business with non-Christians.

And yet those verses never say that. The verses that do talk about marriage, especially I Corinthians 7 and I Peter 3 give instructions to in one passage both Christian men and women married to unbelievers, and in the second to Christian women married to unbelievers. It gives instruction for approriate behavior in this type of marriage, it does not condemn this this type of marriage.

It does not plainly state that it is a sin to marry a non-Christian anywhere in the New Testament, though Paul has no problem plainly stating so many other things as clearly wrong- fornication and idol worship are two that come to mind immediately.

In fact, the only place I can find where it even hints that Christians should limit their choice of spouse to Christian only, is in I Conrinthians 7:49, but while it could mean that the spouse must be "in the Lord" it may also mean that the choice must be made "in the Lord" or in accordance with the leading of the Holy Spirit. It does however in the same passage declare "she is at liberty to be married to whom she will" the modifier "only in the Lord" following.

If we are to interpret scripture by scripture, the phrase "in the Lord" as used elsewhere has to the guide for how it is meant here. It seems to mean "in the reality of your union with Christ" in most cases. The question I have for my pastor next time I see him, is what exactly is being modified, the widow in choosing or the object of her choice "to whom she will"?

Contenders for the prohibition can come back with anecdotes of marriages gone wrong. I can come back with many "Christian" marriages gone wrong. They can appeal to common sense, i.e. the effect on the children of an unbelieving parent, will the believing spouse be free to live for the Lord and share Christ with any offspring? I can clearly point to many "Christian" marriages that end the same way, with one spouse leaving the faith or (even worse) living lukewarm lives that defy the dedicated believing parent's testimony and confuse the issue. What the other side can't do is point to any verse in the New Testament that plainly declares it a sin to marry an unbeliever. They can point to Old Testament commands not to marry adherents of pagan religions, and even commands that Jews should marry Jews, but if they take it as far as all that Christians will soon be looking for marriage partners among distant relatives, like Abraham did for Isaac.

Although Paul refutes the false teaching that forbade marriage, says plainly that marriage is not a sin, and counsels younger widows to remarry, he never forbids marriage to a non-Christian. And given the context of the world in which the new testament was written, a world in which people were not always free to choose their spouse, it would have been ludicrous to make such a prohibition.

The pagan world practiced total patriarchy. Women were given in marriage by their fathers. They had no say in the matter if the father did not allow them a say in the decision. Fathers also arranged marriages for sons as well, and again a son had no say if a father gave him no say. I think that is why Christian-only marriages were never commanded, yet Paul or Jesus or any other apostle could have made that mandate plain. If it were really a sin, I am sure the Holy Spirit would have made it abundantly clear, as clear as the many commands to abstain from fornication (Acts 21; Romans ;I Corinthians 5,6,7,10; Galatians 5; Ephesians 5; Colossians 3; I Thessalonians 4).

I know that people who have been indocrinated to believe in dispensationalism, the rapture and the invisible command that Christians can marry only Christians will not be persuaded by the fact that the Bible itself never spells these doctrines out. At best, people wanting to believe them can infer support from one or two passages taken out of context. As for me, I am done letting fundamentalism interpret the Bible for me. I will simply read it for what it says, interpreting it in context, letting the Bible interpret the Bible, and not simply swallowing stuff from teachers just because it sounds good at the time.


  1. I will edit this later. No time right now.

  2. I did exactly the same thing when I left the Baptist Taliban, and came to the exact same conclusion about how proof-texting distorted so many truths. I had never considered the teaching about marrying unbelievers, though didn't take the same position post BT as during. It makes sense. Not sure about the dispensationalism part. I'll have to revisit that one.

  3. Yup, most biblical interpretation is proof-texted through the lens of extra-biblical doctrine: Original Sin, Divinity of Jesus, Trinity; to say nothing of the lesser doctrines you mention. And usually the interpretations are layer after layer of tradition rather than context. Christianity in general and American Evangelicals/ Fundamentalists in particular need a good slap up side the head, sorta like a "reset" whack you'd give your old television when the picture started flipping (remember way back then?).

    Rabbinical Juddaism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and eventually Western Christianity (I think Augustine, but don't quote me) all concluded that the thematic context of the entirety of each group's Scripture was "Love God, Love Neighbor" and that everything in the Scripture had to be interpreted through that context. Period. If something created conflict, out it went.

    A lot of good stuff came out of the Reformation and the Enlightenment but what we've done with the Bible isn't part of the good.

  4. I first learned the importance of context, letting the Bible interpret the Bible, and checking the original Greek/Hebrew for meaning in my Moody Bible Institute classes. It's good practice for every Bible student.

    I don't see myself ever reading Spong, Sandra, but you will always be a sister in Christ and I accept you as Christ accepts you. There is so much we can and do agree on, though after checking out your reading list I know we won't always agree. I believe in the Apostles Creed, as far as a statement of faith goes.

    One of our congregations Bible students has chosen the Orthodox branch of the family tree lately. He, like me, is looking for authentic Christianity, not just swallowing what he is told wholesale but searching the Word daily to see what is and isn't, uh, can I use the word kosher? :)

    Keep searching for the truth. Jesus promised that if we keep on seeking, we will keep on finding.

  5. I'm totally okay with people disagreeing with me. I respect everyone's right to think for themselves, do their own work to determine the path they want to travel. As long as the path one chooses leads to deeper Love of the Divine and greater love for one's fellow-man, then that's enough agreement for me, regardless of doctrinal statements.

    Oh, and I'm still building that book list--it is a little heavy on the Spong and Armstrong right now. I only put the titles on there that I remembered off the top of my head. A lot of stuff that I got from the library, I can't remember. Somewhere I have a bibliography I was keeping that I wanted to add but I have to find where I filed it!

  6. Cindy,

    My husband likes to tell this joke: "I used to be a dispensationalist, but you know how things change..."

    Search the Word for truth. Certainly there is a day when our Lord will return, the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus promised us he would return, and we all wait excitedly for His glorious appearance.

    The rapture, the half-return preceeding the Second Coming, was a doctrine proposed by an American Plymouth Brethren in the 1800s. Just google dispensationalism and start reading.

    Here is a great link: http://www.aracnet.com/~wing/esc_chrt.htm

    It is a chart of all four major views of confessing Christians about the end times. It is unbiased, just the facts about what the doctrine is and which branches of Christianity ascribe to that position.

    Keep searching for the truth. Jesus promised that if we keep on seeking, we will keep on finding.